A.G.: Those who serve our country should know their rights and be protected from scams and abuse
Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has issued a consumer advisory highlighting New York state and federal laws protecting current and former members of the armed services, and offered tips to veterans and service members on avoiding targeted scams.
"Our nation owes a great debt to military service members, veterans and their families. It's despicable that anyone would seek to take advantage of those who have sacrificed to ensure our safety and preserve our rights here at home," Schneiderman said. "I am proud to say that I will do everything in my power to protect the brave men and women who have fought for our country by aggressively pursuing scam artists that target them, and by helping them to understand their legal rights."
Scam artists consistently target U.S. military personnel and their families. The unique characteristics of service members - a guaranteed paycheck, job security, and the transient lifestyle of multiple deployments and relocations - make them more susceptible to a variety of frauds, the A.G. said.
As scamming incidents in the military often parallel those in the civilian community, the A.G. said service members and veterans should follow these basic consumer tips in order to avoid becoming victims:
•Don't rush into making purchases or investment decisions. Take your time;
•Always carefully read through a contract;
•Resist high-pressure sales tactics. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is;
•Beware of unsolicited phone offers - don't be afraid to hang up on solicitors who are rude or pushy;
•Use care when giving out personal information such as bank account or Social Security numbers; never give that information to people you don't know;
•Get written estimates;
•Ask about refund policies and warranties before you buy;
•Prepare a list of questions in advance when considering a major purchase;
•Call the Better Business Bureau to find out about a firm's track record.
In addition, service members and their families should stay abreast of the rights and protections guaranteed them under the Service Members' Civil Relief Act in order to avoid frauds and other financial difficulties:
•Interest rate on mortgage payments and credit card obligations may be capped at 6 percent during the period of military service (and one year after the service member's return, in the case of a mortgage) if service materially affects the member's ability to pay.
•Mortgage lenders may not foreclose, or seize property for a failure to pay a mortgage debt, while a service member is on active duty or for nine-months grace period prior to Dec. 31, 2012, unless they have the approval of a court.
•A landlord may not evict a service member or family from a primary residence where the rent is $2,975.54 or less (adjusted annually) except by court order.
•Service members have the right to stay any civil proceeding, including foreclosure action and debt collection, for at least 90 days if they cannot appear, and without accrual of penalties. The court has discretion to grant additional stays upon further application.
•Service members who receive permanent change of station orders, or who are deployed to a new location for 90 days or more, have the right to terminate contracts, including vehicle leases, phone contracts, etc., effective 30 days after the next rental payment is due (if no lease) or the last day of the month following the month in which notice is given.
•A military legal assistance office locator for each branch of the armed forces can be found here.
Tips for Service Members, Veterans and Families when using DOD and G.I. Bill Education Benefits
Service members and veterans who are seeking to further their education at a for-profit higher education institution, such as trade school, should choose carefully. The for-profit education industry has recently been plagued by complaints and reports alleging some proprietary school officials and recruiters engage in deceptive conduct, including misrepresenting the quality and cost of the education they provide, engaging in high-pressure tactics, and misrepresenting the job prospects and earnings of students who complete their program, the A.G. said. He advised:
•If you are considering a two-year program and hoping to transfer to a four-year college, make sure that your credits will transfer with you. If the school does not have a "Regional Accreditation," you may have trouble transferring any credits you earn to another institution.
•If you're looking to obtain a certificate for a specific occupation, make sure the certificate will be accepted by the state agency that regulates that occupation.
•If you are considering enrolling at a for-profit school, consider that for-profit schools are often much more expensive than similar programs at public universities and community colleges. And, if the program does not meet your needs or if you drop out, you may have exhausted your VA benefits and be left without sufficient funds to continue your education.
•Beware of high-pressure sales tactics. Many for-profit schools are eager to recruit service members, veterans and their families because they receive federal money for these students. There is no reason you should be rushed to decide on any particular program.
•Before enrolling anywhere, find out the program's actual graduation or completion rate and job placement rate, as well as the average starting salary of students who complete the program. If the graduation and job placement rates are low, beware.
•Find out the loan default rate for the school. A high loan default rate shows that a lot of students are not finding the high-paying jobs that some schools say their graduates get.
•Review and make sure you understand the school's refund policies.
•Confirm the school is licensed or registered with the New York State Education Department.
•Gather as much information about the curricula and teachers as possible. Tour the school or sit in on a class. Try to speak to current enrollees or individuals who have completed the program to learn about their experiences and impressions.
Veterans and members of the armed services can find more information on avoiding scams and other recourses available to them on the attorney general's website. In addition, anyone who suspects that he or she may have been targeted by a scam are encouraged to file a complaint by visiting the office's website or by calling 1-800-771-7755.
In the past two years, Schneiderman has committed every tool at his office's disposal to protecting New York's service men and women:
•He partnered with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Department of Defense, and the Federal Trade Commission in January 2012 to launch the Repeat Offenders Against Military (ROAM) Database, which tracks enforcement actions against companies that have scammed military personnel to combat future financial frauds.
•In August 2011, Schneiderman reached a $3.5 million settlement with retailer SmartBuy that cleared the negative credit of thousands of soldiers fraudulently charged after purchasing electronics through illegal payment contracts. The A.G. secured another $9.5 million settlement with the company in November 2012, wiping out a total of $12.9 million in debt for service members.
•In February 2011, Schneiderman secured settlements banning several Buffalo-area debt collectors from the debt collection business after they preyed on military families, illegally harassing and defrauding them.
•In July 2013, the A.G. helped 176 Fort Drum soldiers retrieve their vehicles following complaints a local storage company was not properly maintaining the autos while the owners were stationed overseas.